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Sunday 11 September 2011

Sound Effects and Locksmiths

Recent articles about whether we want to hear sound effects when reading Ebooks made me feel uneasy, and I've been trying to work out what was bothering me.

When we read fiction, each one of us creates a mental impression – which has both visual and auditory elements, albeit tenuous, hovering on the edge of our perception – of the characters and the story. This is what makes reading a highly personal experience, and what makes it exciting. Reading is a solitary, outwardly quiet activity, but inwardly it is an act of imagination, the reader’s personal relationship and interaction with a written text and an author’s voice. Wouldn’t a soundtrack intrude on that process? Give us a someone else’s reactions to what we are reading before we have time to construct our own?

I’ve always been interested in the way film music can influence our response to a film. Many years ago I saw a television programme with AndrĂ© Previn giving us something of a master class on this. He was married to Mia Farrow at the time and to demonstrate his point, he had filmed a simple scene which consisted of Mia Farrow sitting at a table. She was still, and the expression on her face was completely neutral. We were shown this first without music, then with different musical accompaniment. What was striking was that, depending on the music, she looked happy, irritated, anxious or scared. We knew it was the same piece of film – but the different sound tracks were playing tricks on our eyes and our impressions. We were being presented with a series of ready-made interpretations of the scene.

During the years that I was a teacher, I noticed that the way young people recounted films they had seen or books they had read underwent a definite change. What later pupils gave over was a series of images (often with sound effects included) – but without the verbal ‘sutures of sense’ which, at least from a traditional point of view, give form, structure and time to a narrative. This meant that I was often no wiser as to what the story was ‘about’ – perhaps in fact, missing the point?

I noticed that this reflected the pacing of the films they were watching – one sensation following another without slowing it all down by going into the whys and hows of the story (as the books I am presently writing attempt to answer the whys and the hows, I find this particularly interesting). It also reflected the sound tracks of the films. Film music itself, at least popular film music, has changed over the decades. It now has much less ‘narrative shape’ and is constructed more around recurring riffs - also used (although I am no expert) in video games. What I find particularly interesting is the effect this might be having on our brains and our relationship with narrative. Does it mean, for example, that the synapses enabling us to relate cause and effect are not being developed in the same way? Is a new grammar of thought emerging – much more about sensation and juxtaposition than about cause and effect and context? And does this have an effect on people’s reactions to the world and their actions?

Of course, people are reading less than before. People receive information and entertainment in other ways. The reading experience is moving on from paper to other media. But just as the printed word revolutionised access to written material and also led to people having less retentive memories ( a necessary feature and bi-product of an oral tradition) , I suspect that the present changes we are witnessing will have a comparable effect on our brains, how we perceive things, and our interpretative faculties . Is this bad? Not necessarily – just different. But if we add a pre-prepared soundtrack to our reading, we are surely running the risk of cramping the development of our imagination. And that feels wrong.

It is about the value we place on reading. And the extent to which people are unaware they are being manipulated.

Recently I have been watching with some fascination my now two-year-old grandson’s relationship with stories and narrative. A lot of the new words and phrases he incorporates into his speech come from his favourite stories. But before he came to visit this summer with his parents, he had introduced us, via Skype, to his enthusiasm for the Jungle Book, acquired through viewing the Disney film version, and would enact and recount the scenes with great enthusiasm. So I decided to hunt down a hardback version of the book with illustrations, which I found, second-hand on Amazon. The book was nicely produced, but, I had to admit, the line drawings were not too much like the Disney images, so I was curious to see the reaction. It took him a couple of minutes as he turned the pages, but then his face lit up and he happily pointed out Baloo, Bagheera, Mowgli and Shere Khan.

You could say he’s lucky, of course. I live in a flat in Edinburgh. There is a flat below us and a flat above, and there is a common entrance. Yesterday evening, quite early, there was a loud bang. At that stage there was no narrative. A dog barked, some noise on the stairs.

Later that evening and this morning, some narrative was provided. A burglar of the ‘opportunist’ type broke into the main entrance. One lock gone. He tried our upstairs neighbours' flat. They were in, heard a scraping noise, but not more. A second lock spoiled. I don’t know why the burglar ignored us but he did. He went downstairs. Our downstairs neighbour heard scratching and as he went to the door it flew open and the burglar fell forward flat on his opportunistic face. He then fled. That’s three out of four locks broken, nothing stolen – and the police know who he is. I’m not sure why they call him an opportunist, but locksmiths on Sunday call-out must be doing well.

So last night I understood the sound effects. It’s the narrative that’s poor – and expensive.

Somehow I don’t think our opportunistic burglar has read the Jungle Book.

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